Diving Ducks on West Bay

Diving Ducks on West Bay

Not many folks associate the Panama City area with waterfowling, but the wingshooting on the bays can be quite good. Here's what the action is like.

Capt. Todd Jones found out that a layout boat is ideal for West Bay ducks shoots. Photo by Robert L. Brodie

By Robert L. Brodie

On day one, stiff north winds of 15 to 20 knots sent an occasional light spray of salt water over my head. Lying prone in my low-profile layout boat, a light chop lapped along both its sides. With the temperature near freezing, and waves passing at eye level, it wasn't hard to get stay focused on the hunt.

Under the cover of darkness just 30 minutes before my getting into the cozy confines of the craft, my friend, Capt. Todd Jones, had dropped me, the boat and five dozen decoys into the waist-deep shallows of West Bay in Panama City. Sporting neoprene chest waders, the bottom under my feet was covered in a couple of inches of soft silt over firm sand and with each step the drag of thick eel grass could be detected.

Now, dancing in the dark before me, a smattering of redhead, canvasback, bluebill and bufflehead decoys looked alive on the bay's expansive and churning waters. Just before shooting time, I detected the eye-opening, adrenaline-pumping sound of large flocks of birds passing overhead. Three massive flights passed in close sequence, and the rush of wind coursing over hundreds of wings simultaneously created a loud sound resembling a huge jet gliding above.

Although I could barely see them, I knew the ducks were highly prized redheads that were coming off their roost somewhere out of Harrison Bayou area just a mile or so southwest of our hunting location at Long Point. Once shooting hour arrived, I detected ducks moving throughout the vast bay. It didn't take long for the low, yet fast-flying buffleheads, to appear. Small flocks of these "butterballs" began buzzing the outer edge of my setup precisely where I had placed Capt. Jones' hand-carved cork bufflehead decoys.

Suddenly, gunning became fast and furious as the wee divers had me in a sit-up shooting position. As my daily limit was nearly reached, four big ducks came flying up the bay in a northerly direction. Lying back down with my eyes fixed on the dark objects, I slithered even lower as the birds broke in my direction.

Flying directly into the wind and the spread of decoys, the ducks suddenly broke up, three flaring to my left and one to the right. Focusing my attention on the bird to the right, I sat up and fired two shots. The second shot found its mark and the big duck splashed down hard into the bay's choppy waters.

"It's a drake redhead!" Capt. Jones yelled out, after having made the retrieve for me.

With my daily limit of five ducks that included four drake buffleheads and the drake redhead, we decided to make a quick run back to Capt. Jones' quarters for a bite to eat and some hot coffee. Although I was done shooting for the day, I would accompany Todd on the afternoon hunt, but this time he would be the one in the layout boat.

The scenario for the afternoon hunt went basically the same as the morning. Todd managed to easily bag his limit of buffleheads, although none of the redheads passed through until after gunning hours. As I brought the powerboat alongside, Todd was pumped up about the effectiveness of the layout boat.

"By next season I'll build at least two of these layout boats!" he asserted.

It was apparent that my gray-hued, 10-foot layout boat that is shaped like a huge pumpkinseed had impressed the captain. It was no wonder he was taken aback by the vessel, since they are not at all common on the Sunshine State's Panhandle coast - at least not yet!

These boats have an extremely low profile on the water, with a silhouette that is vaguely reminiscent of a Civil War monitor. In spite of that, they are surprisingly stable for shooting and seaworthy on inshore waters. All in all, they make excellent open-water duck boats.

Though good shooting platforms, you don't want to have to paddle one for a long distance, so it is best to transport the little craft to the hunting area aboard a larger powerboat.

On day two, we decided to return to Long Point for a quick morning hunt. Luckily, on this day the redheads decided to leave their roost at a later time. Off in the distance I could see the large, staggered flocks of redheads approaching in my direction. The first couple of flights veered off just out of gun range, but finally a group committed and dropped down to my left on the outer edge of the decoys.

As I sat up, the line of ducks detected my presence and suddenly gained altitude. Drawing a bead on the rising line of birds, I fired three times and to my surprise two birds crumpled and went tumbling into West Bay. My morning hunt had started out with a limit of two hefty redheads, the trophy ducks of the bay. Like the previous day, plenty of buffleheads would make the morning gunning extremely entertaining and fill out the limits.

BAY SPECIES

According to Capt. Jones, the most common diving duck species gunners encounter on the large, open bays around this Panhandle vacation mecca are buffleheads, redheads, lesser scaups (bluebills) and occasional canvasbacks. Jones also stated that there is a chance to bag a goldeneye or old-squaw on the bays. An occasional puddle duck, such as a widgeon, gadwall, mottled duck or teal, may appear at times.

Regardless of the diving birds that show, however, one need is constant to this hunting.

"For best results when hunting divers on the big bays, it's best to have a very large decoy spread," Capt. Todd Jones asserted. "I would recommend a setup of a minimum of 60 or so decoys, with a spread of 150 or more even better. You really can't have too many for open-water gunning.

"When hunting these big bays, a decoy spread should include redheads, bluebills, some canvasbacks for color, and definitely at least six to 12 buffleheads," Capt. Jones continued. "Just a few bufflehead decoys on the outside edge of the spread can make a big difference in hunting success, especially since the speedy low-flying buffleheads are plentiful in the bays and decoy readily to their own kind."

Jones also suggested mixing a few widgeon decoys in with the divers for added realism, since those birds are noted for stealing food from diving ducks. Puddle duck decoys like mottled, teal and gadwalls can be added to the spread to make it look larger, but keep them closest to the boat. However, if you have enough divers to create a nice spread, then set the puddle ducks grouped by species out to one side

away from the divers.

"As for duck calls, a typical diving duck call will do to mimic the 'brrrrrrrrrrr' sounds made by many divers," Jones pointed out. "And it's wise to carry along some sort of teal or widgeon whistle and mallard call just in case."

HUNT THE FRONTS

Capt. Jones thinks that the best times to hunt the bays are during windy conditions.

"As cold fronts approach, the bays become rough with winds from a southerly direction, and then come out of the north as the front passes through. Any sort of windy condition stirs up the ducks in the bays, thus making it the best time to seek out divers. Also, the approach of cold weather usually brings in good numbers of new birds," Jones reasoned.

He then went on to say that early- morning hunts are usually the most productive, but as long as strong winds sweep across the bays, decent gunning can take place any time. There are even some good afternoon hunting possibilities. For the most part, the more plentiful the influx of cold fronts, the better the diving duck hunting will be. Cold, overcast, drizzly and windy days are the ideal conditions for hunting divers on the big open waters around Panama City.

GUNNING SUGGESTIONS

Diving ducks are a tough breed of birds, and are hard to knock down clean on the first shot. They usually require some quick additional "peppering" while on the surface in order to prevent them from diving and swimming away. Although shooting a wounded bird on the water isn't glamorous by any means, it's definitely a part of hunting divers on big water.

At times when it's rough, you have to time your shots precisely as the bird appears and you crest a wave. I've come to rely on larger gauges, and heavier loads for the much-needed knockdown power in these conditions.

For example, my gun of choice is a 12-gauge, with interchangeable chokes, firing 3-inch magnum shells. I usually go with the modified choke and increase my shot size from a commonly used No. 6 or 4 pellet, up to a larger and heavier No. 2 shot. Besides the extra dropping power of the larger pellets, the extra weight seems to make them carry a bit better in heavy winds. Although the layout boat will put you in the position to take plenty of shots under 30 yards, it's good to have the extra reaching power to knock down birds at 40 yards or better.

WHERE TO HUNT

On West Bay, the best hunting is found along the southern side from on the west, past Long Point and Harrison Bayou to the vicinity of Shell Point in the east. Through here the bottom is blanketed with thick sea grasses and nutrient-enriched silty bottoms that hold plenty of small clams and scallops for divers to dine on.

This two-mile stretch of shoreline has a large trough loaded with sea grass near shore, with an outer bar along which the divers are prone to travel. It provides an ideal area for a gunner to set up in a layout boat.

Similar situations can also be found along the shores of the East Bay as well.

BIG-WATER SAFETY

When it comes to duck hunting on big water, safety cannot be stressed enough. Though layout boats are steady as shooting platforms, they also have quite low waterlines. Since you are going to be using such a boat at a time when such factors as extremely fast-changing winter weather conditions, night running, having loaded weapons aboard, and facing cold bay waters, you can never play it too safe.

First and foremost, proper lifejackets should always be aboard the vessels, and should always be worn during transit time. That applies to the person running around in the tender boat as well. It is not a bad idea to keep the jacket on when hunting in the layout boat as well.

In most instances, you will be in relatively shallow water during the actual hunt, so a good pair of neoprene chest waders with a tight belt around the waist can keep you warmer, and if you get out or fall out of the boat, can keep you dry, while maintaining body heat.

"Devices like chart plotters, cell phones, VHF radios, waterproof matches, cans of Sterno hand warmers, flares and a powerful spotlight are good to take along during big-water hunts," Capt. Jones noted. "Plus, when handing guns back and forth out of boats, always make sure the chamber is open and the guns are unloaded."

Also, in case of any emergency, some contact information that you should have on board is the telephone number for the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Panama City, which is (904) 234-2475. Also, for problems that don't qualify as emergencies, but when you are stranded, Sea Tow or Tow Boat U.S. can be reached on Channel 16 using a VHF radio.

CONVENIENT

LAUNCHING SITES

To hunt West Bay, you can launch at the public boat ramps at either the east and west ends of the Hathaway Bridge on U.S. 98 between Panama City and Panama City Beach.

Another ramp is at the east end of the bay on Collegiate Drive in Richard Simpson Park. At the extreme western end of West Bay, a public launch ramp is located in B.V. Buchanan Park, where the Intracoastal Waterway exits the bay. The boat ramp is at the south end of the state Route 79 bridge over the ICW.



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